Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies
Director: Steven Shainberg
Running Time: 111 mins
Secretary is an American film about a shy and awkward young woman who, after being released from a mental hospital, takes up a job as a secretary under a dominant boss, with whom she enters into a complex sexual relationship.
A film that tries to be simultaneously provocative and genuine, Secretary isn’t a perfectly executed erotic drama. On the one hand, it does provide interesting and well-layered depth regarding the nature of a submissive-dominant relationship. On the other, however, it’s never quite as risqué as it wants to be.
That means that, for all its interesting and often well-developed dramatic depth, there isn’t quite that kick or intensity to really hammer home the film’s core themes.
But starting off on the bright side, Secretary does at least have a little depth and worth to it – particularly if you compare it to cinema’s other best-known erotic drama: Fifty Shades Of Grey.
Now, Secretary and Fifty Shades are worlds apart, and comparing the two is frankly pointless, but on the effect of bringing insightful depth into the nature and dynamic of such a romantic relationship, Secretary really shows why it’s worth doing.
The film doesn’t solely rely on the supposed fun factor of erotic sex and titillation, but instead brings an almost analytical edge to the table, showing how and why the dynamic between Maggie Gyllenhaal’s submissive and James Spader’s dominant characters develops in the way it does.
Delving into the psychological backgrounds of the pair, their families and their personal histories, the film offers engaging and worthy insight into a relationship that’s a lot more intense than what we normally see from Hollywood.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader are excellent in the lead roles too. Spader is almost disgustingly dominant with his behaviour towards his secretary, yet at times puts you under his spell too, while Gyllenhaal gives an electrifying portrayal of a hugely shy woman coming out of her cage and – for want of a better term – ‘blossoming’ in a new relationship.
As a result of all that, Secretary is a film with a strong screenplay that lends its story real character depth, as well as genuinely insightful drama throughout.
However, where the film really falls down is in trying to deliver something a little more intense or even unsettling.
As I said, this film certainly goes further than the majority of fluffy or sappy romantic films we see from Hollywood (The Notebook, Jerry Maguire etc). In fact, without even showing much in the way of graphic scenes, Secretary does a good job at establishing itself as a defining and rule-breaking drama.
Saying that, however, it’s never quite as potently intense or erotic as it really wants to be. It’s definitely an interesting watch, but where it struggles is in trying to make you as the viewer feel that same intensity as the on-screen characters, experiencing the hot whirlwind of this relationship for yourself rather than just watching it unfold.
And that’s a real disappointment, because with a little more atmospheric intensity and risqué excitement, Secretary really could have been a mesmerising watch.
Overall, Secretary is certainly an interesting film, but it sadly doesn’t go far enough to make its premise work perfectly. What it achieves in dramatic depth throughout it falls down in atmospheric intensity, undoing the work of a strong screenplay and two excellent lead performances in reducing the powerfully erotic nature of the film as a whole. And that’s why I’m giving it a 7.2.